Improve As You Move:
A Newsletter for the Barstow/Alexander Institute.
Volume 1, Number 1, August 2003
Copyright 2003 by Stacy Gehman
Permission is granted to reproduce this newsletter provided it is copied completely including the copyright line above.
A Note about the Newsletter Name: “Improve as you move” was a popular phrase early on in Marjorie Barstow’s workshops. Marj often told students that they could not improve unless they also moved. Some of you may wonder why she would need to tell us that. Sometimes in Alexander’s work the emphasis is on faulty sensory appreciation, inhibition and ‘non-doing.’ With that emphasis it is easy to get the notion that the best way to progress is to spend time sitting, lying or standing still, practicing inhibition – after all, if I actually do something I will probably do it wrong. Marj’s point was that you can’t possibly change your use of yourself, unless you move. Of course, not every movement is an improvement. “Improve as you move” points us to a possibility – that every time we move involves a choice – a choice that is usually made automatically, and therefore results in a habitual movement. By staying awake, and observing the change in the relationship of our heads to our bodies as we move, we at least have a chance to make a different choice; and if instead of an improvement, we do the habitual movement anyway, at least we will know it, so next time we might discover something new and wonderful. This newsletter is dedicated to helping you (and me too) improve as you move.
Some Thoughts about Arms and Shoulders: It was not unusual, when a student asked Marj a question about their shoulders, for her to reply “you’re shoulders are just the upper part of your body.” As with many of Marj’s comments, I think I am now beginning to understand what she was getting at. When I am having a problem with a part of myself, in this instance a shoulder, my attention tends to be drawn to that part. I may want to fix it – my shoulder feels like it is too high, for example, so I might want to pull it down. But then it feels even tighter, so maybe it’s down too far, so I move it back up, but then it feels like I’m holding it up. So where does that darn shoulder belong anyway? This approach to fixing what I consider to be a problem is oriented towards parts and their positions, and the approach is actually part of the problem. Alternatively, if I can remember at some point that the relationship of my head to my body is somehow important, if I ask my neck to be a little freer, so my head can move more delicately, and ask my upper body to pick up that same delicate quality of movement, then my shoulders just naturally go where they belong as my body follows. They are just the upper part of my body, and when my head moves, my body will follow.
If I were wise, I would probably just stop here. But I know how often I have found myself stuck, where no amount of noticing my head and neck seem to help, and I presume that you may have found yourself in a similar pickle on occasion, so I will continue with some thoughts and experiments that I have found can help me out of those situations.
My problem when I find myself stuck is that my head has stopped moving and my body won’t follow, at least not in a way that pleases me, so my shoulders stay tight. In these circumstances, to help me discover what I am doing with my head and body that is making my shoulder seem like a problem, I sometimes play a little game with myself that I will call “following my fingertips.” You might want a little privacy if you choose to try this game, unless you are fortunate enough to work in a dance or theater department, where your colleagues probably are used to seeing you do odd things – or rather, seeing you do delicate and fluid movement gestures.
Let’s say that I am standing, with my arms hanging by my sides. I start by noticing my fingers – usually they are slightly curved inwards. I start moving by asking my fingertips to move in a direction that will open up my palm. Once they are moving, I let them continue to move, with the tips of my fingers leading the movement, and ask the rest of my arm, and then my body to follow along. It is amazing the creative and surprising places my fingertips will lead me. If I find that the movement is no longer easy, I pause and ask myself where in my body I am not following the movement, i.e. where have I decided to hold on for one reason or another, instead of allowing everything to fluidly move with my fingers and arm. I usually start with one hand, and then the other, then both of them at once, playing with them moving in mirror image of each other, in parallel with each other, and independently of each other (to the extent my brain is flexible enough to allow it). This can be great fun, writhing around like a couple of snakes, but I like to really check in regularly to make sure I haven’t gone on automatic pilot, and started to push my arms around.
This little game was inspired by watching Marj work with dancers in particular, but also musicians, or anyone who was using their arms and hands to do something. Try thinking about this idea the next time you grab something, say a tennis racket, or a knife to cut vegetables. Take a moment to let your fingertips lead your fingers and hand around the object, letting them lengthen in the process, instead of automatically grabbing the object. I even once suggested this to a rock-climber who was climbing the bricks of the chimney in a teaching space I once used. Just this simple idea can be quite helpful. (For a refresher on ‘body mapping’ of the hand and fingers, please follow the Body Mapping link on my web site.)
Several years ago, a student asked me a great question about this activity – how could he know when he had stopped moving his arm easily in following his fingers – i.e. how could he know when it was time to check-in on himself? One answer to this question is to pay attention to everything as you move: head, neck, torso, legs as well as your arms. If anything feels even slightly tight or stuck, suspect that you have started to hold on and are pushing your arm around. If so, pause where you are to redirect your attention, first to your head and neck, then torso and legs, then ask your fingers to lead on, and see what you discover.
There is another answer to his question that I particularly like, because it helps me to become more sensitive in my observation of myself. For example, suppose my shoulder is tight, and I decide to try “following my fingertips.” After moving my arm around a bit, I may not notice anything unusual about the movement of my arm, but my shoulder is still tight, or perhaps even tighter. My assumption in suggesting the following experiments is that there is something I am doing in moving my arm around that is contributing to my tight shoulder, even though I don’t feel it to be so. My goal then is to discover what I am doing in moving my arm that I don’t know I am doing. It is a way to make myself more sensitive and aware of what I am actually doing. I start as before, going back to the beginning of the game, just standing with my arms hanging easily by my sides, but I make only a very small movement with my arm – one that requires no perceptible effort at all, but enough of a movement so that my whole arm swings just a bit. Then I let it go back to rest. I do that several times, and note where I stop the movement before going back to rest. I then repeat the movement and at the point where I have stopped before to go back to rest, I instead pause, and ask myself where I feel I need to tighten to move my arm further, or perhaps I’ll notice that I have already begun to tighten something. Wherever that tightening is, I redirect my attention to my head and neck to see how that is related to what I initially felt I needed to tighten. When I see how I also want to tighten my neck in order to proceed with moving my arm, I ask my neck to be free, and my fingers to lead the movement of my arm. If my arm continues to move freely (and also my head, neck, torso and legs) then I continue until I again notice something interfering with the free movement, when I will pause again, perhaps even back up a bit, and redirect my attention to my head, neck, etc. In fact it is usually a good idea to pause occasionally to see if a little extra tension has snuck back in. If instead of discovering a new way to move my arm freely, I continue to tighten to move my arm, I return to rest, and start again. Or take a break and forget about it. If I am not fascinated and having fun, but feel frustrated instead, I may as well just quit. There are already enough things in the world to frustrate me without me adding one to it. I can always come back to these little experiments later.
Another possible experiment is too let your fingertips lead you to a book shelf, or some other solid object on which your fingers can alight, one that is about shoulder high, give or take a foot or two. Let your fingers rest there, with the shelf (or whatever you’ve landed on) supporting some of the weight of your arm. In a sense, your arm is hanging between the fingertips and your shoulder (or more accurately, where your collar bone meets your breastbone). Use this as an opportunity to release tension that may have built up in your shoulder. Check to see if your elbow is hanging down, or is held up to the side. Also make sure that you aren’t pulling down on your arm to make the pressure at your fingertips feel greater. When you feel that your arm is nicely hanging there, experiment with taking back more of the weight of your arm. Notice where you tighten, then go back to letting your arm hang from your fingertips. Begin again by noticing your head, neck, and torso. Ask your neck to be a little freer, and think of your arm lengthening to take back its weight. It will probably take a few repetitions to discover how to get your arm back to moving without over tightening the muscles in your arm and shoulder. In a sense, the whole point of this exercise is to become so sensitive to what you are doing, that it may feel impossible to move your arm without that tension. Then decide to do the impossible.
After playing around with “following my fingertips” for a minute or so, I usually feel much more awake and energetic, and if I had started out with stiff shoulders, they usually feel a lot better. Actually, there’s no need to wait for stiff shoulders to try this out. Also after a few minutes of this, try taking a walk around to see if anything else is different, or perhaps your voice may be different. We really aren’t separate parts. Change your use of one part, and you change the whole. And change the use of the whole to change the use of a part.
I think that is probably enough for now. I hope you will find the information useful. If you have comments, suggestions or questions, please write to me. I would really like to hear if you find these suggestions useful, or frustrating, or if you find some new way to experiment that helps you move more freely.
Thank you for your time and attention, and for the use of the bits and bytes in your cyberspace.
Stacy’s Web Site: http://stacyg.drizzlehosting.com/
Barstow Institute Web Site: www.barstowalexandertechnique.com